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The Levi 501 is a right of passage, a historical relic, and a fashion miracle.
Designed in 1890, the original Levi’s company was the result of two men coming together to build a business to sell a pair of pants that were durable enough to withstand the working conditions of the working class.
Though the name on the tag is Levi’s, it was the Latvian tailor, Jacob Davis, who in December of 1870 was paid by the wife of an unusually endowed husband to design trousers that could “contain” him. Taking rivets he’d previously used to fasten blankets on horses, he used them instead to fasten the front of his newly designed jeans.
Davis then approached haberdasher Levi Strauss to invest $68 for a patent for half of the share of his business and Levi’s took over the world. Or at least the part that had lumberjacks, railroad workers and miners.
The patent was officially granted on May 20, 1873 marking the birth of the Jean.
The Jean is Born
The original Levi 501 began to be manufactured in the 1890s and modern jeans become popular in the 1920s among ranchers, cowboys, and railroad workers. The cowboy craze that came with the cowboy films and the stars that came with them, like John Wayne and Gary Cooper spurred the popularity of the jeans in common culture.
Their pull continued into the late-40s as celebrities of the time started to adopt them. The 50s and 60s saw subcultures such as the Mods, skinheads, punks, and even traditional artists, such as painters and writers adopting the jeans which were seen as the embodiment “of macho cool then and now”, according to writer Paul Gorman who wrote on street fashion and pop culture.
The Rise of the Rebel Risers
1950s 501s were a rebel’s partner in crime. James Dean made these jeans, paired with a white t-shirt and bomber jacket, the classic bad boy look. Or Marlon Brando’s biker jacket and motorbike in movies like a Streetcar Named Desire. Even sex symbol Marilyn Monroe wore these jeans which made an appearance in the movie River of No Return.
The jeans have even become a historical relic and in 1964 the 501 jeans were inducted into Permanent Collections of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Levi’s has also made an effort to acquire the signature pair of 501s worn by Steve Jobs, which he customized with two buttons in the back to accommodate suspenders. He wore his with New Balance and black Polo shirt.
From the activists of the 1960s and 1970s to grunge movement of the 1990s, the 501s kept its popularity steady with each movement adding their own particular flare to the jeans.
1960s stars like Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Steve McQueen incorporated the versatile jeans into their personal style launching them into the fashion realm and making them a fashion staple. Their scarcity created an exclusivity that soon reflected in the price tag to obtain them.
The Evolving Design
The name for the 501s came from the lot number it was given during the time the company used lot numbers to label their different products. In 1890, their “copper riveted waist overalls” were given 501.
The Original 501’s did begin to change as consumers asked for different changes to be made to make the denim classics more modern for their times or more functional.
In 1922, belt loops were added because of customer command.
The custom and tapered 501s were introduced in 2015 with the stretch version was introduced in 2016, which still has all the original qualities of the original shrink-to-fit. The 2017 release of the Skinny gave the skinny style so common today the vintage Levi’s look.
Getting Your Own Pair of Levi’s 501
Their website carries five styles: Original, Skinny, Shrink-to-Fit, Taper, and Shorts. They carry Levi’s jeans for men 501 and Levi’s 501 women.
The Original 501’s stick to the original design and have the signature two horse patch sewn on the back. This pair celebrates the durable denim and rivet design. These also come in a stretch denim to add to the mobility and comfort of the jeans.
The Levi Skinny is the modern interpretation of the Original 501’s. This design suits the sensibility of a generation that wants to squeeze into a pair of jeans and have them fit like a glove.
Introduced in 2015, the 501 Taper is a more tailored version of the Original 501. These jeans maintain the roominess of the back and thigh area of the jeans and gradually tapers from the knee down to the perfectly hemmed ankles. They also have this style available in stretch denim.
In modern times, the Levi 501 is more accessible and is a must-have in everybody’s fashion arsenal. And with these vintage Levi’s available in their original design, you can share in the legacy.